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The Ellington Century

Duke Ellington’s legacy is unique among twentieth century musicians. While most of the biggest jazz musicians — Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong — are known as performers, Ellington was always a composer first. But unlike most composers, he never published his scores. So it was not clear until recently how much of his music was actually written by Ellington, and how much was the work of his band members. That left his legacy in limbo until the late twentieth century, when the Smithsonian made public a trove of his work.

Reed College jazz professor David Schiff sifted through the Smithsonian collection, and his new book, The Ellington Century, seeks to clarify the legacy of the musician. In the compositions Schiff read, he saw Ellington as a composer inheriting the language of African-American music and culture, while also building on (and simultaneously tearing down) the European classical tradition. The resulting works blurred the lines between simple genre classifications throughout the century. As Schiff puts it,

No single oeuvre spans the full cross-categorical range of mid-twentieth-century music better than the vast repertory of the Duke Ellington Orchestra

Throughout his career, he would push melody, rhythm, and harmony in directions they had never gone, while tackling subjects like race, history, and religion with unprecedented complexity.

Are you a fan of Ellington’s music? What do you see as Ellington’s legacy? What effect did he have on twentieth century music?

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